Keeping beer cold without warming the planet

January 14, 2020 | 5 min read
Jake Marin | Program Manager & Ali White | Energy Consultant

Some of our favorite Vermont products require refrigeration: craft beer, apple cider, cheese and other dairy products, and more. That refrigeration can be a significant portion of a Vermont business’s electric use, whether it’s your neighborhood convenience store, a major grocery chain, or a restaurant.

All refrigeration systems have chemicals called "refrigerants" in them. These systems are designed to hold just the right amount of refrigerant to get the job done effectively and safely. However, with wear and tear, all systems eventually leak refrigerant to varying degrees. When refrigeration systems leak, electric use increases, and equipment becomes less reliable. That’s why Efficiency Vermont has partnered with grocery and convenience stores on repairing leaks and making systems tighter.

But there’s another reason to stop these leaks, as our colleague Carol Weston shared last year – they are massive, hidden contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. How much varies by the type of refrigerant, but one pound of leaked refrigerant is equivalent to about 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Stopping these leaks can save money and electricity and reduce our contribution to climate change.

This is such a critical source of emissions that Project Drawdown identified refrigerant management as the number one solution for reducing carbon emissions globally. Efficiency Vermont’s early analysis indicates that if all of Vermont’s commercial refrigeration systems cut their annual leakage rate in half, it would save about 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually- comparable to taking nearly 17,000 cars off the road for a year.

Natural refrigerants cut carbon even further

That’s only the beginning. New “natural refrigerant” technologies are emerging that can completely replace these highly polluting refrigerants with refrigerants that have a fraction of the climate impact. This year, Efficiency Vermont has been working with Hannaford Supermarkets on a refrigeration project at their new store in South Burlington, the latest in a long history of partnership between Efficiency Vermont and Hannaford.

As one of their biggest energy users, refrigeration is a key part of understanding and reducing energy use in their stores. Joshua Smith, Manager of Refrigeration & HVAC Services for Hannaford, had been figuring out a way to get a natural refrigerant system installed, for both the energy savings and environmental impact. But, keeping costs low for consumers is core to their business, so Smith had to make sure this new technology would be financially cost-effective.

Efficiency Vermont calculated that a natural refrigerant system for a store of Hannaford’s size could save $78,000 per year against a traditional grocery store refrigeration system, thanks to the efficiency of the system. The carbon savings – from both the energy efficient design and the use of natural refrigerants – were even more impressive: the system would prevent over 2.5 million pounds of CO2e emissions each year. The innovative system design, coupled with recommendations by Efficiency Vermont, enabled us to offer Hannaford an incentive that covered a significant portion of the difference in initial cost for the natural refrigerant system.

“I'm constantly looking for methods to reduce our carbon footprint, but it has to make sense for the bottom line. Without the incentive, we couldn't have moved forward. Now we will save on operating costs and reduce our emissions - a clear win-win.”

Joshua Smith, Manager of Refrigeration and HVAC Services, Hannaford
Bringing new technology to Vermont, and beyond

This project traces its roots back a couple years at Efficiency Vermont. Before Hannaford started working on the South Burlington store, our Emerging Technologies team had identified natural refrigerant systems as having a huge potential for cost, energy, and emissions benefits for Vermonters. We began working with manufacturers of natural refrigerant systems to identify and provide feedback on new products that could work for Vermonters. We’ve since worked with our network of contractors to train them on natural refrigerant systems, and continue to work one-on-one with customers to provide technical support for new installations.

This kind of market development is core to our efficiency work. One example that you might already be familiar with: Efficiency Vermont helped coin the term “cold climate heat pump” and supported the first applications of heat pump technologies designed for our cold winters. Today, Vermont is one of the leading states for installation of heat pumps that are saving Vermonters money and energy. (Have you gotten yours yet? Efficiency Vermont and your electric utility have rebates you can take advantage of!)

On the refrigeration front, bringing natural refrigerant technologies to Vermont businesses helps businesses like Hannaford gain access to cost savings that wouldn’t have otherwise been available. It also supports the manufacturers who are working to grow the market for their product.

Richard Gilles, Senior Product Leader at Hussmann, the manufacturer of the microDS Solution that Hannaford is installing, noted that programs like Efficiency Vermont are critical to helping customers get past the initial hurdle of investing in a new technology. Hussmann is looking to further deploy similar systems in different geographies and climates across the country to continue to prove that they work well in the U.S. “When this project is complete, we will use it as a model for other opportunities around the country.”

Josh Smith at Hannaford echoed a similar sentiment. “We’re often on the leading edge in our efficiency investments in Vermont, because of the support Efficiency Vermont is able to provide to make it work for our business. We can prove here that these investments boost the bottom line, and hopefully help stores in other states follow suit.”

That kind of adoption could have a massive greenhouse gas emissions reduction impact. If all commercial refrigeration systems in Vermont were converted to natural refrigerants, it could conservatively save over 160,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent annually. There are already several additional projects underway in Vermont. If we can demonstrate the success of these products in our state, other states can follow suit – just as they have with cold climate heat pumps. The impact would be enormous.